Zuckerberg vs. Congress

Mark Zuckerberg was grilled for about 10 hours by nearly 100 legislators in the House and Senate to address the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Lawmakers in both houses, and on both sides of the aisle, raised concerns about whether Facebook had proven to be incapable of regulating itself. Even Zuckerberg said regulation of his industry is “inevitable.” And yet, after all the spectacle of the hearings, industry watchers continue to believe Congress is unlikely to pass significant new laws regulating Facebook (FB) this year given the complexities of the issue and the de-regulatory mindset of the Republican majority. The Republican-led Congress has been more focused on stripping away regulations than introducing new ones. Some members of the party showed their clear unease with imposing additional regulation during the hearings.


The devil is in the details. Throughout the hearings, members of Congress struggled to understand how Facebook works, let alone to diagnose and agree on the precise problems that should be fixed by regulation. The hearings came nearly a month after news broke that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s campaign, accessed information from as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. The data debacle sparked outrage over consumer privacy, but also reignited broader concerns about Facebook’s impact on privacy, civil discourse and domestic institutions around the world.


With that in mind, legislators pitched a mix of policy ideas ranging from giving consumers more control over their data and boosting transparency for online political advertisements to pushing back at Facebook’s alleged monopoly power. Of these, a bill pushing for political advertising transparency appears to have the most momentum right now, with support from Facebook as well as Twitter. Facebook recently moved to label all political and issues ads. On Tuesday, two Democratic senators introduced what they called a “privacy bill of rights” that would require companies like Facebook to get users to opt-in before using, sharing or selling their personal data.


There’s also the possibility that legislation intended to give users more control over their data and privacy could end up benefiting a more established platform like Facebook and handicapping new services trying to build an audience and a business. Zuckerberg himself said regulation could hurt its smaller rivals. Instead, the more imminent regulatory threat to Facebook in the U.S. may not come from sweeping new bills in Congress, but from an old agreement with the FTC. Multiple legislators also raised the prospect that Facebook’s data policies with third-party apps violated a 2011 consent decree with the FTC after a prior privacy complaint. If that is the case, Facebook could be subject to hefty fines. The FTC confirmed last month that it’s investigating Facebook.


Time will tell whether Congress makes grand strides in regulating the complex behemoth that is Facebook. The interworkings of technology companies often are too much for the common man and American lawmakers so seeing major changes in the policies of these firms seem unlikely to happen soon. Congress is undeniably slow when it comes to things that they understand, we will have to see how long it takes with something that no one seems to have a solid answer for.